In a few days, on April 11, we’ll mark the 28th anniversary of the Miami shootout, in which FBI Special Agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove perished in a gun battle with fugitives Michael Platt and William Matix.
A dozen years after the Miami shootout, I had the great honor of speaking with FBI Special Agent Edmundo Mireles, Jr. Gravely wounded and barely able to stand, Mireles fired upon Platt and Matix, killing them both as they tried to flee in an FBI car. Special Agent Mireles received the FBI Medal of Valor for his incomparable courage and commitment under fire.
I interviewed Special Agent Mireles as I created curriculum for a course on mental preparation for combat for the Utah State Police Academy. We spoke of lessons learned and prices paid. He steered me to Dr. French Anderson, who shared his authoritative report on the wounds inflicted in the gun fight. Renowned author, soldier, lecturer and friend Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman also contributed to our course preparation. The course remains today as one of the most valued presentations during basic training.
The objective: to learn from the most costly lessons.
The most costly lessons are those where a law enforcement officer paid the ultimate price. And as Gordon Graham says, "Most of the things we do, we do right. When things go wrong, there is usually a reason." To fail to learn everything we can about the reason that something went wrong is to compound the tragedy of the price paid.
In the Miami shootout, Special Agent Gordon McNeill shot Matix in the face with a .38. That shot took Matix down—but only briefly. Matix got up and moved to a car. Special Agent Jerry Dove shot Platt with a 9mm. The bullet passed through Platt’s arm and penetrated his ribcage, stopping just short of his heart.
Two significant results from the costly lessons of April 11, 1986, involved weaponry. The FBI stopped issuing .38 caliber six-shooters, substituting the 10mm. Eventually, the FBI shifted to the more popular .40 caliber Smith & Wesson and began to issue Heckler & Koch MP5s. Many agencies across the nation benefitted from these costly lessons as they, too, shifted weapons platforms.
Eleven years later, on Feb. 28, 1997, Larry Phillips, Jr. and Emil Matasareanu robbed the Bank of America branch on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. The heavily armed robbers were drugged with phenobarbital to calm their nerves and were clad in ballistic armor. In the ensuing shootout, they fired more than 1,100 rounds at the LAPD officers.
Retired LAPD Captain Greg Meyer observed that many of the responding LAPD officers were detectives who might not have had the same tactical training and the same equipment as patrol officers. The obvious lesson is to include non-uniform and special assignment officers in essential tactical, emergency medical and survival training. When the 10-33 call of "Officer needs help—now!" goes out, they’ll be responding alongside patrol units.
Many agencies paid close attention to stories of LAPD officers rushing to the B&B Gun Shop in the middle of the gun battle to equip themselves with additional weapons and ammunition. Soon after the North Hollywood incident, the LAPD issued military surplus M16 rifles to supervisors. Many patrol officers across the nation purchased personal rifles for on-duty carry. I bought rifles for my two kids who are cops. Now patrol officers in many agencies are equipped with AR-15 (or similar) rifles.
Another lesson from this incident: the creative use of a patrol car as a moving shield to rescue a downed officer. I’ve seen some particularly dialed-in agencies incorporate this tactic in firearms and combat training. There usually won’t be an MRAP around the corner standing by to extricate!
For the first five years of my career, I carried a reliable wheel gun and two speed-loaders. Our forward-thinking agency had recently transitioned from dump pouches, but some officers still carried extra loose ammunition in a pouch or box. These officers would dump the ammo into a hand and sloooowly reload.
On July 1, 1986, NYPD Officer Scott Gadell and his partner got into a gunfight with Robert Roulston. The two NYPD officers were armed with revolvers and carried extra ammo in dump boxes. Officer Gadell fired six rounds at Roulston, meaning that Gadell was out of the fight while Gadell lowered his gun, opened the cylinder, ejected the spent brass, dumped loose rounds into his hand, aligned and loaded each bullet one-by-one, closed the cylinder and came back up on target. While Officer Gadell did all this, Roulston continued to fire from his higher capacity, easy-to-load, 9mm semiautomatic pistol, killing Gadell.
Not too long after that, the NYPD shifted to speed loaders. My own agency transitioned to semiautomatic pistols similar to Roulston’s. The costly lesson of Officer Scott Gadell’s murder was heeded. Today, if you drive by the 101st Precinct House, you’ll know why the street is called "Scott Gadell Place."
Odds are that any street cop today can trace at least some components of his/her felony car stop training to the Newhall Incident of April 6, 1970. Recently, we marked the 45th anniversary of this massacre, in which California Highway Patrol Officers Roger Gore, Walt Frago, James "Skip" Pence and George Alleyn died at the hands of Bobby Davis and Jack Twinning.
Officers Frago and Gore stopped ex-cons Davis and Twinning after a report that they brandished a gun in a road rage incident. Davis and Twinning stopped in a restaurant parking lot.
Initially cooperative, Davis and Twinning then pulled guns and murdered Officers Frago and Gore just before backup officers arrived. CHP Officers George Alleyn and James Pence arrived and engaged Twinning and Davis in a gun battle. Both officers were shot. Officer Alleyn hit Twinning in the head with one shotgun pellet, but Twinning was able to stay in the fight. A civilian and former Marine, Gary Kness, tried to pull Officer Alleyn to safety. When he saw Davis firing at him, Kness grabbed Alleyn’s revolver and shot Davis.
Twinning shot Officer Pence in the head as Pence reloaded his revolver. A common rumor—absolutely untrue—is that Officer Pence died with brass in his pocket, having dumped his spent cartridges into his hand and pocketed them. Such was the custom on many firing ranges. I remember hearing this story and learning the lesson as a young recruit when the range master barked out, "Let the brass fall! Don’t you dare catch it!"
None of these four officers was wearing a ballistic vest. Almost no one did at the time. When I started as a cop and bought my own (very expensive) first-generation Second Chance vest, this was the story that I told my wife to justify the high price. Three of the four may well have lived if they had proper armor.
Failing to wear your vest, to observe proper tactics of contact and cover, to watch for the deadly danger signs in an encounter and to recognize that sometimes, time can be an ally—these are failures that not only jeopardize your safety, they dishonor the price paid by the four CHP officers on that day.
"If anything worthwhile comes of this tragedy," said Ronald Reagan, California’s governor at the time of the Newhall Incident, "it should be the realization by every citizen that often the only thing that stands between them and losing everything they hold dear … is the man wearing a badge."
These incidents all taught American law enforcement very expensive lessons. The price continues to be paid by their families today. Among the lessons:
Let’s learn from the less expensive lessons.
Gordon Graham, a great friend and professional colleague, introduced me to a site that he helped create, www.firefighterclosecalls.com. Cops should imitate firefighters and learn from the close calls, not just the deadly calls. As Gordon Graham often says, "Predictable is preventable." Graham's work as a co-founder of Lexipol helps ensure that we learn from the past and are not condemned to repeat the most costly lessons.
Take a few minutes this week to review some important lessons that cost someone dearly. Pay them honor in your mind and heart and in the way that you carry yourself on the street. Stay safe. God bless.